Even today, Pablo Unzueta vividly recalls the moments he spent as a child helping his grandmother with her photography.
“I just remember being in the dark room and the smell, waking up early because my grandmother had to develop the print,” he recently told The Huffington Post.
The Los Angeles born and bred photographer knows now that those years accompanying his grandmother to photograph weddings and people on the city’s streets are what most influenced his own passion for photography. Unzueta, 20, was particularly inspired by his Chilean grandmother’s long-term project in Central America, in which she photographed impoverished children who roamed the landfills in search of food in El Salvador and Guatemala.
“I even remember the gallery showing she had for that,” Unzueta said. “I was like 8 years old, I just remember seeing the final product and I was intrigued by it. That was basically my first influence; I knew what it was kind of about but I never knew that I would get into documentary photography myself.”
Unzueta’s father is also a photographer, working with the Associated Press in Chile, and his mother is a painter. But when he purchased his first camera at the age of 17, his first photograph mirrored his grandmother’s work with poverty.
“I bought my first camera and the first place I photographed was Skid Row,” Unzueta recalled. “I remember the first frame I ever took too. I still have it on file. It’s of a guy, an African-American male who is sleeping on the pavement and behind him is the warehouse and you have these poles in between. That was the first frame I shot and it was at night. It was around 10 o’clock.”
That moment inadvertently marked the beginning of a project focused on the city’s homeless population, one he continues to work on today.
“I just thought, ‘I can’t believe that some humans live like that, just on the street,’ [and] I just felt compelled to take that photograph,” he added. “I have to admit, I didn’t really appreciate it until maybe two years later.”
Since then, Unzueta has made it a point to document the lives of the city’s homeless population. Both his mother and grandmother moved back to their native Chile, but he stayed behind in the LA area to work on his photography.
To support himself financially, he works as a cook at a bar. During his free time, Unzueta walks around the LA area looking to make a connection with one of the thousands of individuals who call the city’s streets home. Unzueta’s project not only features his subject’s portraits but also their stories.
“I just want to humanize people,” Unzueta said. “I get a lot of people that tell me, ‘Dude, I’ve never looked at somebody this way until you shared that story, until you took that photograph. I never saw a homeless person like this.’ There’s a lot of stereotypes, like ‘they chose to live this way, it’s their fault.’ So I just want to show people that it’s not so black and white.”
“I met a guy who was a lawyer and he got a divorce and he lost all his finances and he’s on the street now,” he said. “I met a professor who studied economics, you know? How ironic. And he’s now on the street. So I’ve met a lot of interesting characters.”
The photographer’s work can be viewed on his Instagram account, which he says gives him the freedom of displaying his passion project without worrying about being turned away by publications.
In fact, publications are now coming to him. Time magazine found him through the photo application and did a short profile on his work last November.
While working on the project, Unzueta says he’s done more research on homelessness in Los Angeles and found the situation to be dire. The number of homeless people in the city has increased by 12 percent since 2013, according to a report by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority released last week. In the greater Los Angeles area, the report accounted for 41,174 homeless individuals, roughly 70 percent of them unsheltered.
The city’s homeless population is primarily male and the majority of individuals tend to be chronically homeless and/or dealing with some form of mental illness, the report found. Thirty-nine percent of the homeless population was black, 27 percent Latino and 25 percent white.
“Nobody really pays attention to it, and when you see it in these pictures in the LA Times or something like that, they use the zoom lens, everybody keeps a distance,” said Unzueta, who instead approaches his subjects directly, sometimes by offering clothing or other donations.
He first asks individuals about their daily lives on the streets and later for their pictures. The stories are placed in the captions of his Instagram photos.
“I just want to ... get my audience, and even further beyond that, to see things differently, to see the world in a different way rather than, ‘Oh, it’s just another person on the street,’” he added. “It’s such a social norm that nobody really bothers to get to know that person, so why not me do my part and bring that in the comfort of someone’s hand, on their phone.”
Unzueta says he feels the project could eventually become a book. He also sees it as a good way to prepare himself for what he hopes to do later on in his career.
“Eventually I plan on moving on to conflict photography, travel, stuff like that,” he said. “But also because I live 15 to 20 minutes away from LA and I have stories from all over that city that nobody, not even professionals, really touch on. So I just feel like I need to tell that story, while I’m young and while I’m still trying to make a name for myself. Why not try to help people out?”
When asked what photo has resonated with him the most over the years, Unzueta was unable to choose one. But he did admit to being particularly struck by one photo he took during an April trip to New York City.
“I was walking around the subways and I remember photographing an older gentleman, African-American. He was just going on about how he didn’t choose to be here and how he just sits there and it’s cold and there was a blizzard last year and how he hates it,” Unzueta said of the picture featured just above. “ I just remember after I photographed him a couple of times, I shook his hand and I was on my way, but then I saw this perfect image behind these bars. He was right there behind the bars, sitting down, and I just remember snapping like three frames of him behind the bars.”
“I think I just thought, ‘Man, most of these people in a way are locked in the world of poverty, they’re locked in,’” he added. “And that’s how I saw the bars, as something symbolic.”
Photo editing by Christy Havranek.